It’s Not Unusual

rudy valleeTo borrow from that paragon of 1960s Welsh hipness: It’s not unusual for one generation to doubt the mores (the customs) of the previous generation. What we think of as the “teen culture” rebellion of the 1950s (e.g., Elvis) and 60s (e.g., the Rolling Stone) really began in the 20s. Rudy Vallee (1901–86) was perhaps the first pop star of the 20th century, more than a decade before a skinny kid from Hoboken, Frank Sinatra (1915–98), made girls scream and swoon. Vallee’s emergence at the end of the “Roaring 20s” as a pop star set off a trend that repeated itself about every 20 years. After Sinatra came the Beatles and after them came the Sex Pistols and Donna Summer, and after them came Rap and Hip Hop and so it goes. Each generation not only replaces the music of the previous but their music and pop culture is a reflection of the attempt by each generation to express its own identity, to distinguish itself from their parents’ culture. Vallee represented an attempt to break away from more restrictive Victorian customs. Sinatra was more sexually overt than Vallee and the Elvis was more sexually explicit than Sinatra and this happened as the “Baby Boom” generation was calling into question the morals and religion of their parents, the “Greatest Generation.”

Each generation suspects the last of creating and imposing arbitrary rules, which their own parents haven’t entirely obeyed. Hence: teen-age rebellion. Each generation has grounds for its suspicion of the last. In truth, despite its recent, trendy, lionization the “Greatest Generation,” (who had survived the Great Depression and World War II—whereas, beside the Cold War, Herman’s Hermits, or The Archies, perhaps the greatest threats faced by the Boomers were self-inflicted: drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, and Disco) had indulged in a good bit of war-time existentialism and hedonism. “I’m shipping out tomorrow baby. Let’s live tonight.” Their parents before them had begun to abandon historic Christianity in favor of universalism (all roads lead to heaven). The 1920s roared in a variety of ways and were we to see it all today in living color we would probably be shocked at just how rebellious and immoral it really was. Some of the very first films to be made, in that new medium, were graphic pornography. There really is nothing new under the sun. So, when one generation tells the next, “Don’t do that” it is tempting for the youngsters to dismiss their elders as arbitrary and out of touch.

In the 1970s and 80s the earlier moral restrictions against playing cards, going to movies, and dancing (which, in Dutch Reformed circles were known as “worldly amusements”) were regularly mocked as arbitrary. After the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the 60s and 70s the older restrictions seemed a little silly and especially so when Mom and Dad, who had a television and watched it, hid it in the closet when the Domine (pronounced doh-min-ay), i.e., the minister, came to visit. It was a game. The parents hid the TV partly out of fear of being discovered and partly out of respect for the minister’s office. They weren’t obeying the informal rules but they were not willing to flout them openly.

Yet, in 2014, after most of 50 years of laughing at what seemed arbitrary, we can seem some wisdom in what once seemed quite arbitrary. The restriction on dancing, of course, was really a restriction on sexual behavior. Most dancing is inherently sexual behavior. Were we able to transcend our own “sock hops” and watch them from the rafters, as Jane Goodall watched primates, we would see that much of what was taking place was actually a sort of mating ritual. So, the restriction on dancing was really a caution about whom Christian young people should date, whom they should consider as future husbands or wives. It might all seem quaint and the rule makers did not explain themselves well (perhaps they did not understand the significance of the rule themselves?) but in an age where intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals are openly advocating polyamory (and where a Utah court recently struck down the old laws against polygamy), where homosexual behavior and marriage is quickly giving way to demands for acceptance by even more radical transgendered and post-gendered groups, where pedophilia and bestiality are being openly discussed and advocated in socially respectable circles, the old rules were not just quaint. They had a point. In the 1960s and 70s the West rejected the very notion of limits on sexual behavior and we have reaped a social whirlwind. The very sorts of dire predictions made in the 60s about where “free love” would lead have come true, in spades.

The same is true of the old strictures against cards and movies/TV. Where gambling was once done largely in secret, today one can hardly listen to or watch sports without hearing the event interpreted for gamblers. In Southern California and elsewhere most music concerts take place in casinos. Atlantic City has hit hard times (again—I’m having flashbacks. The headlines read like the late 70s) but that’s only because gambling has moved from the strip to the computer and the phone. Governments now seek to fund themselves by promoting gambling and then by funding programs to help people overcome addiction to gambling. Is it possible to play a friendly hand of Rook without falling into a debilitating gambling habit? Certainly. Was the old rule against gambling applied carefully and thoughtfully? Probably not but we do now live in a culture where increasingly it seems that the intrinsic value of work is rejected and where making one’s own way financially is for “suckers.” A remarkable percentage of Americans today rely upon other Americans to support them financially, even though they are physically able to support themselves. They simply choose not to work. In 2014 “becoming a burden on society” seems to be considered by some a natural right. In the last decade alone American politicians have spent an almost incalculable number of future dollars (i.e., dollars that have yet to be earned and taxed) and those voters who endorse their behavior by re-electing them, seem incapable of saying no to any demand for public funds, so long as they are spending other people’s money. No such system is sustainable. Eventually the taxed will revolt against the taxers.

In the same list of rules encouraging thrift are Victorian rules on the sexual behavior of teachers. They seem draconian until we consider the gob-smacking number of cases in which teachers have seduced or sexually molested students in the last year alone. This is hardly fundamentalist Christian paranoia. It is news. Kimball Perry, writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer says,

“We’ve got some teachers in this country who have lost their minds,” said Terry Abbott, the chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 and former spokesman for the country’s seventh-largest school district in Houston. He now owns a public relations firm that tracks cases of educators accused or convicted of sexual contact with students.

While Abbott admits his research isn’t exact – it’s based on media accounts of such cases–he has found 460 such cases in the U.S. from Jan. 1 through Aug. 10. Of those, almost two-thirds of the teachers were male; the average age of the accused teacher was 35.

“I think we’re looking at a national epidemic,” Abbott added.

It’s an issue with which anyone with school-aged children can identify. It’s frightening because critics suggest that as many as one in 10 U.S. public school students – or about 4.5 million children – are involved in some kind of inappropriate teacher-student relationship.

The Victorian rules about the sexual behavior of teachers may have been extreme but they were grounded in consciences that were informed, to some degree, at least by Augustinian realism. Teachers in their 20s and 30s are potentially sexually attractive and attracted to young people who are just discovering the their sexual potential. It’s a dangerous mix, as we’ve seen. What was once shocking—a teacher arrested and charged with having sexual contact with a student—has become routine. Late night hosts and shock jocks laugh on-air about whether the latest teacher so arrested is “hot,” when, in reality, teachers who seduce students have violated a sacred trust. Schools act in loco parentis, i.e., in place of the parent. They have a fiduciary responsibility to protect children. To exploit them thus is the grossest violation of that trust and worthy of the severest punishment.

All this is to say that rules that might once have seemed arbitrary and unjust may actually have contained some wisdom from the past. Perhaps that wisdom was wrapped in scratchy, unpleasant fabric but it was there. However much we may sear the conscience or submerge what we know to be essentially right: do not commit adultery and do not steal—these are the fundamental norms those old rules against dancing, cards, and the “silver screen” sought to apply. We can never really escape God’s holy law. It is embedded in the conscience of every human. Paul says exactly this in Romans 1 and 2. It is not possible to become too sophisticated for “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–30). These laws are woven into the fabric of human existence. They are inescapable and inexorable. We may violate them with impunity for a time but God’s law will exact its punishment. This is why Paul says

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:26–27).


Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap (Gal 6:7)

Each generation will inevitably question the previous generation’s morals. When the standard for that inquiry is the objective standard of God’s law, that can be a valuable exercise. Was it wise to ban all films? Probably not. Would it have been better for Reformed folk to engage the new media critically and to equip that generation to understand the nature of images and their power? Certainly. That discussion might have helped us understand why God has forbidden images of the persons of the Holy Trinity. Has all dancing always been wrong? Certainly not. Miriam and the other women are not presented as sinning against God in Exodus 15:20. There is dancing that is not inherently sexual. By failing to make that distinction, some Dutch Reformed folk have reaped the whirlwind in the form of liturgical dancing. Yet, Miriam et al were not doing the Lindy or the Twist. Rook is not the same as Texas Hold ‘em.

What we are really talking about is the transmission and reception of wisdom. It’s not unusual for one generation to question and even resist the wisdom of a previous generation but with each such process there is perhaps a little progress (civil life for racial minorities is, in important ways, better in 2014 than it was in 1964) but there is also a little erosion. Wisdom seeks to understand the principle at stake so as not to lose what was truly important.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Comment 1: ‘In 2014 “becoming a burden on society” seems to be considered by some a natural right’ – but only for those who could support themselves if they chose. Those who couldn’t are expected to “take advantage” of the “right to die”.

  2. “The 1920s roared in a variety of ways and were we to see it all today in living color we would probably be shocked at just how rebellious and immoral it really was.”

    And this is why we still teach _The Great Gatsby_ in schools. America, 1920s: it all looks so strangely familiar. Of course we all know what happened next.

  3. The problem with this analysis is that when you really probe the morals of each previous generation going back to Adam , you discover that they stunk pretty much as badly as the newer one. The sin just took different shapes. A generation that doesn’t say cuss words keeps slaves. A generation that won’t dance in public secretly molests kids, etc.A desire for “the good old days” plays into the hands of the Patriarcy movement, the CREC, and every group that longs to return to the days of old.

    • Erik, I’m not sure that the analysis totally implies this, though it might have helped to point out that this generation is far more generous with its substance than previous ones, which doesn’t begin to compensate for the values it has lost. And we must guard against that tendency to go with Schofield and say that Ecclesiastes is just the view of “man under the sun”. But it isn’t, it’s the Word of God, and we ignore 10:7 at our peril.

      What you say about generations is applicable to contemporaneous cultures too. We decry the sexual mores of some other cultures, for instance, but what about the way we treat our old people? You wouldn’t find that amongst the Latins, for instance, though you would find it very common in Pakistan if you know where to look (They “look after them at home”, but in practice that means keeping them out of sight and neglecting them).

  4. So the Law does not produce righteousness. Rules are powerless to produce virtue, absent the Gospel- which most of the Victorian era was missing. The Lost Generation didn’t hear much of the Gospel, but they did hear about rules. The Greatest Generation was even less familiar with the Gospel, while the rules were beginning to reflect that reality. Dorothy Sayers in “Creed or Chaos” had a magnificent analysis of the WW2 generation’s Biblical illiteracy. And so it went. As society became less and less informed by the truth of the Gospel, the rules made less and less sense. Billy Joel pointed out that “We Didn’t Light the Fire”.

    • MJ,

      As society became less and less informed by the truth of the Gospel, the rules made less and less sense.

      I appreciate this because I think there is a great deal of truth in it. The older people I knew, who lived through the 20s had a nearly completely legal approach to Christianity. Many “Fundamentalists” (a diverse movement), “moderates,” and virtually all the liberals took an essentially legal approach to the faith. When Machen inveighed against “Mr Legalism” is was with liberals in view.

      Sayers is wonderful, isn’t she? I wish everyone would read C or C.

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